Narrative: A World of Story

You might call it the elephant-in-the-room syndrome: there are some things that are so everywhere, so much a part of the air we breathe, that we can easily miss their significance. Narrative is like that. We turn to stories for entertainment, of course – from films and books to comics and computer games. In social interaction, too, from workplace water-cooler to TV chat-shows, the ability to deliver a well-timed anecdote is highly prized. But there are also those tiny, inconsequential narratives that form the fabric of everyday conversation and gossip – how the bus broke down, the strange behaviour of a colleague at work …

And then, at a grander, public level, there is the way that political leaders, institutions, entire nations, represent themselves in the form of stories about their origins, the challenges and obstacles they have overcome, and their future goals and aspirations. These examples remind us that stories can not only be entertaining or explanatory, but also manipulative. In a court of law, a barrister will present her client’s case in the form of a persuasive narrative of what happened – but it is the jury’s job to distinguish between a good story and the truth. And then, at a deeper, individual level, there is the way we construct our very sense of identity and self through the silent, introspective stories that we tell ourselves, about where we have come from and the journey that we are on.

In the one-day course Narrative: A World of Story I explored the common thread that runs through these examples: the tendency for the human mind to perceive actions and events in the form of narrative structures. I referred to narrative as an elephant-in-the-room, but in fact this is not quite true: in the course, I’ll draw on recent research by psychologists, social and political scientists, anthropologists, psychotherapists, even neuroscientists, that recognises the distinctive power and importance of stories.

According to child psychologist Jerome Bruner, for example, there are two principal modes of human thinking. One is the “paradigmatic” mode – this is the kind of thinking by which science justifies itself: it proceeds by logic, abstracting from particular cases in order to classify and formulate general laws. And then there is the narrative mode, which is concerned not with general laws but with the unpredictability of actual, particular events and the waywardness of flesh-and-blood, individual people. Narrative deals, above all, in the vicissitudes of human intentions – how we pursue goals, face obstacles or reversals of fortune, are overcome by or surmount those obstacles, and perhaps discover that achieving our goals has unintended consequences.

Children as young as two understand this about narrative and use narrative to make sense of the confusing world that surrounds them. This process continues throughout our whole lives. Narratives create forms through which we understand and evaluate events – though, crucially, those forms vary widely (though within some interesting limits) between cultures and individuals. In this course, we’ll be drawing on films, personal testimony, novels, journalism and poetry to understand narrative’s deep roots in human psychology and the ways in which it moulds the way we see the world.

Morley tutor Adam Lively delves into the world of narratives and the stories we tell ourselves in our new course Narrative: A World of Story.

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